[14 December 2011]
When the first wave of Third Man Records email blasts initially heralded the arrival of Nashville’s the Black Belles, questions abounded. Lots of questions. For instance, who was this quartet of Lydia Deetz look-alikes and what strain of dark arts had they utilized to secure a coveted label roster spot alongside heavyweight hitters the Dead Weather and the Greenhornes? Perhaps more importantly, what happened to my VHS copy of The Craft? Many moons, a couple of buzz-generating singles and a Stephen Colbert endorsement later, we finally have answers to at least some of those queries. Unfortunately, The Black Belles brings a little more manufactured gloom and doom than bargained for.
Try as one might to extricate Jack White from these proceedings, it simply can’t be done. His Phil Spector-styled Svengali stamp is imprinted on every aspect of this project, from the macabre black-on-black wardrobe selections to the secrecy shrouded PR campaign. Though it gives the album some much needed artistic heft, in the end the Black Belles’ self-titled debut offering is heavy on eye-catching art house style, and decidedly light on memorable songs.
The musical formula is simple enough to detect. Let’s call it a mixture of equal parts 60’s garage band flair, Gothic blues ravers and riot grrrl spunk. And true to White’s deft production abilities, the record sounds appropriately beholden to musical spook-rock forbears like the Monks and the Cramps. The songs themselves, however, come off as little more than afterthoughts, which is a shame given White likely had a spirit conjuring gem or two stashed away in his ever growing archive of riff-based foot stompers.
Guitar slinging singer Olivia Jean’s tongue-in-cheek vocal delivery provides the sarcasm-infused foundation for the majority of the tracks. Her good girl gone bad aphorisms arrive so quickly and consistently you need a flying broomstick to dodge them. On “Pushing Up Daisies”, she intones, “My enemies become my best friends / I found my enemy needs to be fed.” Where a line of that sort should sound menacing and probably would in the hands of someone like, I don’t know, (cough cough) Alison Mosshart, Jean’s declarations aren’t so much as sinister as they are forgettable. Therein lies the problem with The Black Belles. The pervading campiness of the music trumps any sort of real emotion that might be hidden underneath that ghostly-white group exterior. As such, most of the songs are easy to dismiss in the same way you would a novelty tune like “The Monster Mash”, or a well-meaning Misfits tribute band.
Elsewhere on the album, the Icky Thump synthesizer makes a comeback appearance on “In A Cage” but delivers little more than nostalgia for the likes of Jack and Meg. True to its namesake, “The Tease” plays coy with its listener, alternating between hushed whispers and sing shout verses to limited effect. Similarly, the album closer, “Hey Velda”, limps to the finish line amidst a backdrop of calliope keyboard swirl and grunged-out guitar.
Alas, there is a silver lining to this black cloud. With its cleverly placed Farfisa tones and Ventures meets Stooges guitar riff, “Honky Tonk Horror” is a girl-rock anthem in the making. The cheerleading-like refrain is impossibly catchy. Goth on, droll sisters! For those of you curious about this band of newcomers’ instrumental prowess, by and large, the Belles rise to the occasion. In particular, drummer Shelby Lynne deserves kudos for some devilish drum work. Her snappy surf rock beats add an extra helping of vintage cool to what is mostly a plodding affair.
It will be interesting to see where the Black Belles go from here. Assuming they hit the road in support of their inaugural long player, they may very well stumble onto something surpassing pure camp. Here’s hoping they step out of the shadow of their wide-brimmed hats and into the light where we can see them for real. Sunscreen is optional of course.